On Twitter, I wrote:
Between ARIA, Saiunkoku, and Akage no Anne, we may’ve watched enough anime with our girls about women who work hard and achieve their goals.
Some folks were interested, so here are some details on those series.
First, some things you should know about our tastes in anime:
- They run strongly towards the gentle and slow-paced, because that’s what our girls (9 and 6) like. If your kids think Jurassic Park is great fun, this isn’t the list for you. If we ever watched something even as severe as, say, Star Wars, they would be crying so loudly I wouldn’t be able to hear Luke tell Obi-wan, “I want to come with you to Alderaan.” (Which is a problem… how?)
- Every single one of these series extolls the virtues of hard work and an honest, forthright character. The truth is, I’m not sure I could explain to the next generation why being an anarchist punk isn’t the better choice. I sure hope good parenting doesn’t entail making the family a miniature of the world outside.
- It’s surprisingly easy to find anime that passes the Bechdel Test, so why settle for less? (I hear a lot about how constraining Japanese society is for women, and I believe it, but I also come across a lot that doesn’t fit neatly into that picture.)
So, the anime:
A young woman leaves Earth to be an apprentice gondolier in a rebuilt Venice on a terraformed Mars. But it’s barely sci-fi at all; it’s entirely about the characters, about the nature of kindness, friendship, study, and community. The sense of place in Aria is so strong, I wanted to move to Neo-Venezia myself. The plots are idiosyncratic: nobody else has ever had a character undertake a punishment campaign against her own left hand.
If you have a limited tolerance for sweetness, Aria will probably give you diabetes. “Cool” is big in American culture, and Aria has nothing to do with detachment and independence. But from 2004 to 2009, when I was avidly (compulsively) following the cruel and banal mendacity that is American politics, watching Aria on Fridays was like a balm for my soul. There’s something there. Aria makes you wonder why arguments and conflict are such essential ingredients in almost all drama when you can actually have great stories without them.
There’s a bit of Fan service in one early episode, which usually bugs me (it’s condescending to the viewers, and also strikes me as disrespectful to the characters—whatever that means), but please forgive it. It’s nothing my girls even blinked at.
Shuurei, a young woman in a poor but noble family, is roped into being the king’s consort in an attempt to awaken his interest in ruling. He falls in love with her, but she aspires to become a government official, even though the civil service exam is not open to women. Predictably, the king gets the rules changed, and Shuurei aces the exam.
A good bit of the series deals with Shuurei’s troubles gaining the respect of her colleagues despite her manifest competence, and the reactions of the male-dominated court culture to the introduction of a woman. Her supporters hesitate to intervene on her behalf, knowing that her detractors are eager to attribute her success to favoritism. But she perseveres and triumphs.
Visually, Saiunkoku is weak; this is classic cheap Japanimation. The fun is all in the plot, which is pretty complicated. It definitely goes over our 6-year-old’s head, and our 9-year-old misses a lot too, but there’s enough for the kids to latch on to that they seem to enjoy it as well.
- Akage no Anne
This is an anime adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, a novel set in 1878 Canada about a young girl who is adopted by an elderly couple. She goes to school; makes friends; climbs a roof on a dare and falls off; accidentally gets her best friend drunk on currant wine; and so on. She is an accomplished student, gains admission to Queen’s Academy, and wins a scholarship to college.
The story often sympathetically articulates Anne’s adoptive parents’ feelings; I was glad to have that angle set out to our girls.
Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki worked together on this anime.